- The Good: Lovely prose; timely pandemic musings
- The Bad: Can be slow; little difference between culture across centuries
- The Literary: Intricate time travel narrative
A series of interconnected stories unravel across several hundred years, beginning with exiled eighteen year-old Edwin St. Andrew crossing the Atlantic by steamship in 1912, followed by Mirella trying to locate an old friend in New York City in 2020, and in 2203, writer Olive Llewellyn books tours on Earth, missing her home on the second moon colony. Edwin, Mirella’s old friend, and Olive all have a similar experience when realities collide and a wild forest in Canada overlaps with an airship terminal to the backdrop of a violin.
An advanced society in 2401 takes note of the strange anomaly across time, and Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is hired to investigate. Gaspery grew up in the Night City, a few houses away from the decaying home of the famous writer Olive Llewellyn. Gaspery’s mother named him after a character in one of Olive’s books, and he’s been thinking about his mothers’ conviction that humanity lives in a simulation.
I’ve already fallen in love with Mandel’s quiet, slow, nostalgic stories, and if you like Station Eleven, I suspect you’ll enjoy this one for the same reasons. There’s the same beautiful prose, but I also find the exploration of the nature of reality through the characters’ experiences really well done. Without a strong sense of time and place, or even routines and interaction with other people, it’s easy to lose our sense of reality.
One shared experience that looms near in every timeline is a pandemic in which daily life shifts dramatically and there’s no reason to who dies. The physical isolation and even the false reality of virtual meetings heightens the sense of unreality. Then there’s the moon colonies, which are built to remind people of Earth, with neighborhoods and trees and filtered air under a dome that simulates a blue sky. When Olive is on Earth, all the hotels blur together, so that she can’t remember the room number of the one she’s in at any moment in time because all times are one and all are not real. But time is real, because Gaspery travels it, back to each century, trying to explain and find evidence for something that should be impossible.
One character postulates that if we were living in a simulation, you’d think it would be better, indicating a broken street lamp. But sometimes the clues aren’t quite so obvious. A panel of the blue sky in the moon colony begins to flicker, exposing the vastness of black space behind it, and two centuries later, a man thinks fondly of his childhood in the Night City, the colony without a blue sky. Just because the Moon colonies are replicas of Earth, that doesn’t make them less real. A life in a simulation is still a life.
I’m also enjoying the universe of shared characters that pop up between Mandel’s novels. Not that you need to read Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel to enjoy this, but you’ll already have a sense of several of these characters if you do. The scifi and speculative elements are non-technical and subtle in all three books I’ve read, including this one.
If I have one complaint about Mandel’s characters across time, it’s that they all feel a little too similar. They all come from the headspace of an author, quiet and introspective, observant and practical, and Vincent in particular seems to be an in-print account of her book tour after Station Eleven and her specific limited pandemic experience. Some might call this self-aggrandizing, but it feels authentic to me, and you’ve got to write what you know.